Stephen Sachs’ “Bakersfield Mist” is a pleasant trifle pitting a snooty East Coast art critic (Nick Ullett) against a down-on-her-luck dipso bartender (Jenny O’Hara) who comes to assess the authenticity of a $3 thrift store painting she claims is a Pollock. Intent on charming the Fountain Theater audience — which it certainly does — the relentlessly chipper script skirts opportunities to explore class and aesthetic issues.
If the premise sounds familiar, it should, since a real-life incident involving a femme ex-truck driver was detailed in Harry Moses’ quirky documentary “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?” Sachs’ Maude Gutman knows quite well who the #$&% Pollock is: He’s her meal ticket out of a dead-end trailer park existence; the hoped-for $100 million redeemer of a lifetime’s broken dreams.
It comes as no surprise when the suave, austere Lionel Percy reveals his own private disappointments and secrets, presaging the inevitable meeting of minds.
Like Moses, Sachs stands foursquare behind David over Goliath, at one point suggesting Lionel’s ruling should go Maude’s way just because he needs to “be a person” in recognition of their common humanity. Yet if (as in the movie) the painting’s owner has some big bucks offers already on the table, provenance proven or not, exactly what higher principle is being upheld here?
Meanwhile, one fascinating issue at the heart of the whole shebang goes unexplored: If the painting isn’t a genuine Pollock, is it art nevertheless? Maude herself can’t stand the thing – which is pretty funny right there – but when she wields a knife, testing Lionel’s convictions in dismissing the canvas, the moment just trails away.
Real-life married thesps O’Hara and Ullett are genuinely darling, though the play could benefit from a little less darlingness and a lot more grit. Both can’t, or won’t, suppress twinkles to the audience and enough of a case of the cutes to put a decided distance between player and role.
Each is most effective when embracing the character’s profoundest traits: O’Hara’s talons grasping Maude’s seething resentment at the raw deal life has dealt her; Ullett uncompromisingly wrapping Lionel in a mantle of professional integrity.
But a sentimental streak is always at the ready for play and players alike.
Sachs, who also directs, evidently charged Jeff McLaughlin with stripping bare every L.A. thrift shop in decorating Maude’s abode with Hummel figures, stuffed animals and Naugahyde furniture. Still, it’s larger and more comfy than is good for the action. Maybe if there were less room to breathe, the stakes might be higher and the impact enhanced accordingly.
Following this Fountain world preem, “Bakersfield” gets picked up for a series of coast-to-coast productions through the National New Play Network.